12. The eyes of the LORD keep knowledge, and He overthrows the words of the transgressor. This is a humorous play on words in that “keep” can imply hiding something or making it mysterious, while “transgressor” arises from the concept of sly or sneaky. The latter is superficial, while the former is far more even than existential. This is highlighted by the contrast between God’s knowledge in the sense of awareness that takes in all Creation versus the intent of the sneak that tends to consume his awareness. You can’t fool God.
13. The lazy one says, “There is a lion outside; I shall be killed in the streets.” This is preposterous for the obvious reason that some people will use any excuse, even making them up if necessary, to avoid something they find unpleasant. “Wait; what was that noise I heard outside?” In this context, it becomes the excuse for avoiding the effort to obey God’s command to invest oneself into truly understanding His Word by doing it.
14. The mouth of strange women is a deep pit; those despised by the LORD shall fall there. This is an obvious reference to adultery. In this context, the emphasis is on distraction from duty. A man’s lusts can wreck his moral priorities and there is no shortage of folks who want something from you. Guard yourself from plunging into God’s disfavor because it’s awfully hard to escape.
15. Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; the rod of correction shall drive it far from him. In our natural state we are senseless and destructive. There is a fundamental moral necessity for humans to develop beyond that natural state, to fight against the sickness of the Fall. This is the whole point in revelation. The process cannot be made painless.
16. He who crushes the poor to multiply for himself, and he who gives to the rich, only to come to poverty. This echoes a very ancient fundamental understanding that we mistake for some kind of Robin Hood ethic. In the ancient world, virtually everyone you encountered was some kind of relative. Your neighbors were your kin. There were distinct moral boundaries between how you treated strangers and your own kind. You were decent with strangers until they proved themselves a threat, but it was shocking to oppress your own cousins just because God had granted you some small advantage. Blessings were meant to be shared, not further concentrated into fewer hands in defiance of the conditions laid down by God in His Law. Defiance of Law is defiance against nature itself, and you should expect unpleasant consequences in the long run.
We take a moment here to note that scholars detect starting here and half-way through the next chapter a strong similarity between this and some proverbs recorded in Egyptian wisdom literature (specifically, Instruction of Amenemope). It reads very much like a direct insertion of different material. Solomon hardly hides the extent of his borrowing as a collector of proverbs. The other scholars who divided this work into chapters and verses were keeping an eye on themes, not source material. They seemed unaware that some of the following material should have been kept together in larger chunks, but they still understood the apparent context of how Solomon used it, because the original author wrote for his own heir.
17-21. Bow down your ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply your heart to My knowledge. For it is a pleasant thing if you keep them within you; they shall all be fitted in your lips, so that your trust may be in the LORD, I have made known to you this day, even to you. Have I not written to you excellent things in counsels and knowledge, that I might make you know the sureness of the words of truth; to return the words of truth to those who send to you? This is a formulaic introduction to the section following. However, it is also a general statement about the value of wisdom literature itself. Proverbs were meant to summon up a frame of reference wherein you stop your mind running off without considering what the convictions in your heart have to say. Keep things in a moral perspective.
22-23. Do not rob the poor, because he is poor; nor press down the afflicted in the gate; for the LORD will plead their cause, and strip the soul of those who plunder them. This a play on words because the Hebrew for “strip” includes the idea of plunder. Whether seeking justice or simply as beggars, people hung out in city gates because that’s where they were most likely to be noticed. You may well get away with oppressing such folk in material terms, but you will destroy your soul and make of yourself an empty husk. Those who still operate from the heart will discern you quickly and avoid you.
24-25. Make no friendship with an angry man; and you shall not go up with a man of fury, lest you learn his ways and get a snare to your soul. The translation tends to trivialize the imagery and misses some of the humor. Don’t play fellow shepherd with someone whose only mastery is having a bad attitude; don’t wander with someone led by their appetite for outrage. This is not a good apprenticeship, because it simply leaves your life hanging by a noose.
26-27. Be not one of those who strike hands, of those who are sureties for debts. If you have nothing to pay, why should he take away your bed from under you? The echoes the previous proverb in terms of investment. To “strike hands” is a figure of speech for making deals and binding yourself under contracts of partnership. The context implies that you provide funding for another man’s venture plans. This is more than just a warning about being a sucker, but Westerners cannot comprehend how fundamentally immoral it is. Biblical morality insists that you work your investments with your own hands unless the investment is so trivial you can afford to throw it away — you won’t lose sleep over it. By the same token, an entrepreneur should never make himself beholden to investors who don’t share his sense of divine calling.
28. Do not remove the old landmark which your fathers have set. Ancient folk didn’t carve up the land using mathematical precision; it was too easy to dispute. Rather, they established boundaries based on natural features. When such were lacking, they would bring together the interested parties and ritually establish some symbolic marker. It became a de facto covenant sworn before God, as if He were the enforcing sovereign. You wouldn’t move it without repeating the entire process. Such markers became the symbol of moral boundaries for obvious reasons. Any man can sneak up at night and move the stone, or do so incrementally over a long period, and humans might not notice. God is watching and His moral character does not change with the winds of human attention.
29. Do you see a man diligent in his business? He shall stand before kings; he shall not stand before unknown men. Again, the subtlety is lost in cultural translation. The word for “business” arises from the concept of an appointed duty under a higher authority. This is hardly the image of some slavish yes-man, because in Solomon’s world everyone serves some higher feudal authority, almost invariably one of your kin. It was a personal bond, not a mere contract. Somebody has to take responsibility to those above him, so if you take seriously the importance of being one less thing he has to worry about, because you are a living solution instead of a consuming problem, you’ll go far in this world. It’s not a question of actual success, but attitude.